They had come, wearing their bucket hats and bright red shirts, in hope rather than expectation.
As Wales’s first appearance at the football World Cup for 64 years was ended by England, the fans left Wrexham’s fan zones disappointed but unbowed, still proud of their team’s achievements.
Ceri Ellis, who watched the game with her son, Gareth, 12, smiled sadly. “It’s really great that Wales just got to Qatar – it put us on the map. It would have been nice if we could have played better, but it’s breathed life and awareness into our culture, our language. It’s brought everyone together.” Despite the result, Gareth, clutching his Welsh dragon flag, insisted: “I think Wales is the best team in the world.”
Wrexham is so keen on its football that it set up two fan zones.
On a bitterly cold Tuesday evening, thousands gathered outside a big screen on the high street in front of the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, where the Football Association of Wales (FAW) was founded, to watch the match with an English-language commentary. Wrexham is a border city, with many English people living and working here, but they stayed at home or at least did not wear their colours, leaving the streets a sea of red.
Hundreds also watched the game with Welsh-language commentary in the cosier surroundings of Tŷ Pawb (Everyone’s House), a market/arts space.
Mei Emrys, a musician who warmed up the Tŷ Pawb crowd before the game with some rousing Welsh tunes, admitted he was “slightly disappointed” Wales had not played as well as they could.
“But two generations haven’t even seen Wales get to a World Cup. You hope we’ll be back for the Euros in two years and the next World Cup. And it’s been more about the football team. You won’t get a better stage than this to promote Wales, our language, our culture.”
Geraint Jones, who helps run the Welsh shop, Siop Siwan, in Tŷ Pawb, has followed the city’s club, Wrexham AFC, and the national team since he was a boy.
The last time Wales beat England – at Wrexham’s Racecourse ground in 1984 – he came home from college in Bangor to watch it. “But I had man flu so stayed at home. I should have crawled there.”
Welsh – Cymraeg – is Jones’s first language, and he is glad it has received such prominence this World Cup. “The way the FAW has integrated the language has been great. They’ve had the Welsh speakers like Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies doing press conferences in Welsh – fantastic.”
Like cities, towns and villages across Wales, Wrexham (Wrecsam in Welsh) has relished this World Cup.
The museum has a wonderful exhibition of Welsh football shirts through the ages, including a top Mel Charles wore when he represented Wales in the 1958 World Cup. The city has organised football sticker swap points, flag screen-printing workshops and scarf-making clubs.
Councillor Nigel Williams, the lead member for economy and regeneration, said now, more than ever, football was at the heart of Wrexham: “It’s a huge part of our culture.”
Wrexham AFC has been in the headlines across the globe since the US actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney bought the club. “We get tourists from all over the world now because of them,” said Williams. “They visit London, Windsor and then come to Wrexham.” The profile Wales has enjoyed at the World Cup will help that, he said.
After the final whistle, Yma o Hyd (Still Here), the defiant Welsh-language folk song that has been adopted by the squad and become a fan favourite, blared from the speakers at Tŷ Pawb and in venues across the city.
Wayne Jones, landlord of the pub next door to the Racecourse, the Turf, said: “This competition has meant everything for the people of Wales after a 64-year wait. The players will come home with their heads held high. We won’t ever forget what the likes of Gareth Bale, Ramsey and Davies have given us. We’re not disappointed; we’re proud.”